The Never-ending Quest

So let's suppose you're a member of an online writers' forum, OK? Say you're trying to keep going in the face of daily threads about £50,000 deals. You gamely reply “congratulations” (with three smilies) to every post celebrating the sale of Japanese rights, and if you're particularly saintly you might even muster up a sympathetic response to a discussion titled “Damn, I've only sold 10,000 copies, now what do I do?”

And you find yourself struggling with the conflict between being pleased for others and being utterly stabbed to the heart. You love your online friends, love their writing and can't wait to see their books in print, so it's not jealousy – it's more internalised than that. It's a weight in your heart always dragging downwards and reminding you that for some reason (and no one will tell you what that reason is) you're not good enough.

And then, though you wish no ill to those published writers, you have to try not to get just a tiny bit irritated when they go on and on about how their book is a load of crap. I mean, really - how ungrateful and needy. It's obvious they are just trying to draw attention to themselves and manipulate other people into telling them they're brilliant.

But, you know, having at last managed to get into the surreal situation of having a novel about to be published, I've started to think those authors aren't fishing for compliments – if they're anything like me, they have genuine moments (sometimes very long moments of, like, years) of believing their writing isn't much cop. Sometimes it all seems as though the publishers have made a big mistake, or Jeremy Beadle will pop up at the launch to say it was all a cruel joke. (Except he's dead, so he'd be a zombie, and that would admittedly be quite cool.)

The self-doubt and quest for validation never seem to end. Is it just me, or can other writers never be satisfied? I wouldn't be surprised if Stephen King sits there going: “Hell, I only made three million bucks this week. Everybody hates me. I might as well go work in Taco Bell.”

To start with, I thought just finishing a novel would be enough. That's a great achievement, right? I'd have got further than all those people who think it would be easy to write a book if only they didn't have six hours of telly to squeeze in every evening.

Then I did finish it, and I thought: if I send it out and get some rejections, that'll be an even better achievement. Lots of people are too scared to try. Then I thought if I could just get a personalised rejection, I'd be happy. I just wanted to know one way or the other whether my book had some potential or whether it was the crappiest piece of crap that ever existed in the crap history of the crap world. Then I got the first wonderful 'positive' rejection, but once the excitement had worn off, I knew I would only be happy if I could get a request for the full manuscript ... and so it goes on.

Now I'm on the road to publication and it's an exciting time. I feel as though I've broken through the wall of enigmatic form letters and unanswered emails, and found that there are lots of lovely people and great opportunities on the other side. So I'm resolving to enjoy it all in the present, and not keep hankering after the next tiny bit of validation, whether that's an email from the publisher or a comment on my blog, a few website hits or an improvement in the Amazon ranking. I'm going to try to be a satisfied writer.

I mean, if my book could just manage to sell – I dunno – a hundred copies, that'll be enough. Maybe even some of them to people I've never met. I'd be really happy with that. Honest.
Thank you to Stuart Yeates for his photo of Carrick-a-rede Rope Bridge.


Anonymous said...

So very true, Caro - (not that I know about Life After Agenthood) - but oh, that heartfelt beginning I really empathised with. It IS tough - I am genuinely thrilled for everyone who has a success, but at the same time there's a niggly little voice whimpering: 'but what about ME?' And it's so true too that, wherever you are in the process, there's likely always to be the insecurity and the comparisons and the longing for MORE.

Poppy said...

I love your posts, Caro. I truly do.

"I just wanted to know one way or the other whether my book had some potential or whether it was the crappiest piece of crap that ever existed in the crap history of the crap world."

(Is Jeremy Beadle dead?)

But - yes - savouring is a good thing, wherever possible, methinks.

Poppy said...

Meant to say - i particularly liked the lines quoted.

E.G. said...

Completely identify with this post, Caro.

I did not know about Jeremy Beadle, either.

Insightful AND informative post :)

Anonymous said...

Brilliant post! So true.

(How's that for validation?)

Administrator said...

So true, Caroline. We keep pushing the goal-posts the further along the journey we go. I can remember being so thrilled to get a request for the full and now, with this book, my aim is to get several such requests. And if i don't, i'll be gutted - whereas, like you, i was thrilled several years ago just to have finished a manuscript.

But you have to set yourself more demanding goals if you are serious about getting published, finding an audience. Like JK Rowling - i bet she's still not satisfied on some level and may, for example now seek success in adult fiction.


Anne Brooke said...

So very true, Caro - and one of the big reasons why I left WW. It was just killing me (in a virtual sense) - bizarrely I'm writing a lot more and more freely since I made that choice!

And I've downplayed my dream sales to 50 copies now - 100 is extremely positive in my little world!



Caroline Green said...

This was a wonderful post, Caro. Just brill. I can identify with so much of what you've said here.

Geraldine Ryan said...

Caro, a really honest post and one we can all identify with I'm sure. The human condition means that we'll never be satisfied and it's that which destroys us all in the end.

Ooo-er! Did I just say that?

Anonymous said...

I don't think it has to be so dramatic, does it?. There's a lot more stuff that just needs improving than is rank bad or supremely excellent. And all this setting goals is helpful, don't get me wrong, but what's the point of comparisons? There's always going to be people with more money, more time, more contacts, more luck and, let's face it, more talent. Just do your best and enjoy it is what I say. I really liked the post, and the comments, though.


Anonymous said...

Great post, and soooooooo true. I suppose no one ever said we were particularly sane, did they? I do so agree and I know from where I've got to it doesn't stop at publication, and I'm absolutely sure it never does. (And if you add in straightforward economic fear of the next stage not working, it gets even worse). Jilly Cooper and Joanna Trollope really meant it when they talked about how hideous it is waiting to hear what their editor thinks of the new book. And bestselling commercial authors so often hanker for literary acclaim, and literary prize-winning authors so often hanker for mega-sales. I suspect whether anyone's happy with where they've got to is much more to do with their character, than with where they have got to. And because it is, for most, such an incredibly long haul to learn to write and then get published, by definition we're pre-selected for being people who aren't happy with where we've got to, with writing at least.

I think it's inevitable that you set yourself new goals, and as Sam says, that's what it's going to take, after all. Better to have an achievable goal, and make it, and then have another. The aspiring writers who never get anywhere are the ones who're convinced as they write Chapter One that they're writing the next... whatever, and when they get a rejection, give up, or simply write the same stuff again without realising that they're going to have to work to get better.

But the line between a sensible and necessary re-setting of goals, and a neurotic conviction that anything you've achieved is, by definition, not worth achieving, is a very thin one, specially in our don't-show-off culture. I think giving yourself time to savour is absolutely right, and then carrying with you the conviction that you've already achieved something worth doing - as you say, the finished manuscript, the helpful rejection, the reluctant turning-it-down.

One problem, I think, is that one's nearest and dearest don't understand that these private or even apparently negative events ARE achievements, so your own sense of achievement doesn't get the backup it used to from others for getting swimming badges and university degrees.

I've taken buying myself little presents for small achievements, just to acknowledge that they happened and to stop myself moving on too quickly to the next hurdle: Penguin mugs seem peculiarly appropriate.

Anonymous said...

Caro, that's a brilliant post. I laughed aloud in painful recognition. When you achieve your 100 sales, I'm sure you will be fully sated and never long for anything further. Put me down for one copy, so that's only 99 to go.

Anonymous said...

Thank you all for your comments - it's lovely to have such a great response. I feel validated ... for the next few minutes at least!

(Yes, Jeremy Beadle is dead - he died about a year ago at the age of 59. I loathed him when he was on telly, but apparently he was a really nice bloke in real life.)

Administrator said...

Yes, Emma, it's a pity an official body doesn't issue some sort of badge or certificate when you get your first personal rejection or request for the full! Some physical proof that you are improving.

And i know what you mean, Sheila, about 'does it have to be so dramatic' - but speaking personally, the ups and downs are dramatic to me at the time, which is why i've made the effort this year to make my novel-writing less the main focus of my writing/daytime (whilst the family's away) life. With this blog. And a part-time job.


Administrator said...

I'll still probably be a drama queen though, so be warned all as i'm subbing next month:):)


Gillian McDade said...

I really identify with your post Caroline - I'm sure many of us can. There are probably celebrities out there who have sold thousands of copies and are still not satisfied. And I had forgotten that Jeremy Beadle was dead!
Incidentally - has anyone ever walked Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge?? - go on try it! ;)

Great blog Caroline

Anonymous said...

This was one of those posts I read and think 'I wish I'd written that!'. I so agree ... as a published but not very well-selling (is that a word?!) novelists, I do make the occasional whingey sort of noise, and then I remember how I vowed, at the moment of acceptance of my first novel, that I'd be happy for the rest of my life!

I think it's a bit like longing for children (as I did, many moons ago), and promising yourself that if you do ever have babies you'll never complain about them crying, or about feeling tired (etc) -hmm, yeah, right!!!

I often apologise to a writing friend who is (as yet) unpublished, for my occasional gripes, as I'm sure she must think I'm really ungrateful. But as someone else said - we all do move the goalposts - and now I just KNOW that if only I could have one of my books made into a film, I'd NEVER complain again ...!!!

Anonymous said...

Write Woman, that's very true about children - I struggled for years to have a baby and now I am mum to the cutest little boy on the planet, but when he's ripping the Caps Lock key off my laptop for the millionth time a day, I guiltily long for a couple of hours a week of childcare.

To go back to earlier comments now the said tot is sleeping peacefully and I have time:

Anne - I can well imagine revising my expectations to 50 copies, but if I could just be sure I write as well as you do, that would be fine!

Sheila - in my case it's not just dramatic, but melodramatic. The voice of reason is there in the background, but individual personality (mine, anyway) is good at defeating reason. You're right that it's important not to be too influenced by what other people are achieving.

Emma - love your idea of buying presents to mark the small achievements. When I got my first ever rejection, I actually smiled as I read it, because I felt like a real writer at last - but when I told other people, they looked sombre and tried to cheer me up. I couldn't explain why it felt like a badge of honour.

Rod - thank you - I'm delighted that you laughed out loud for the right reasons!

Once again, every comment is really appreciated – thank you!

Anonymous said...

I so totally "get" this. As one who's currently complaining about having to choose between agents - shame on me. Emma's suggestion of indulging in a little something to mark each small success is an excellent one.

Anonymous said...

Loved this, Caro. You are always funny and honest in your posts. But but but but...where's the rebel in all us writers eh? All this about badges and presents and achievements. Pah! Scorn, derision and misunderstanding - that's the ticket. People spitting on you from a distance, starving in a garret - is there no real bolshy artists round here?

My goal: an underground cult success. I've neither an idea what that actually means or how to achieve it which can only be helpful.

Steve Feasey said...

It's all true. We are so bloody needy. I blogged about this very subject a couple of times recently.

Great stuff, Caro.

S x

Anonymous said...

Great post!

Anonymous said...

Thank you to those who've made further comments!

Rosy - I'm not sure how you become an underground cult success, but if it were too underground, maybe you wouldn't even know about it ... so you would never be able to say to yourself that you'd achieved it. ;)

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